About this blog

This isn't designed to be a blog per se, but just a place to store things I've written for easy reference. Most of it will be book reviews, with a few random essays about the stuff that interests me outside work (i.e. nothing on politics and government).

Monday, November 5, 2012

Amazon Review of Eisenhower in War and Peace

Eisenhower in War and Peace
Jean Edward Smith
2012, 976 pp.

Amazon review is here

Perhaps because of the division in 21st century America between two parties in thrall to extremes, centrist Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower is very much in fashion today in the publishing world. The crown jewel of recent Eisenhower-related output, however, is likely Jean Edward Smith's Eisenhower In War and Peace. Smith, the author of multiple military, political and judicial biographies is the ideal biographer of Ike, and he delivers as perfect a product as could be hoped for in a work that stretches over 900 very well written pages.

Smith begins with the Eisenhower family history, dusting off legends and revealing some uncomfortable truths about Ike's father in particular. Still, he does not dwell too long on family and upbringing and by the end of the first chapter Ike has just graduated from the US Military Academy. The book is fast paced, with each chapter containing a new, interesting episode in Eisenhower's military, academic and then political life. It nicely transitions from Ike's military to political career, noting his speeches upon return to the US. The war's impact on the statesman's understanding of foreign affairs is evident when Ike tells an audience in New York City about the need to remain both strong and tolerant, always considering the rights of others while being unafraid to assert the US's own rights. Smith is fluent in the most recent scholarship. Readers will be presented with an up to date account of every significant aspect of Ike's life and career and Smith's well considered views on many of them.

Although Smith makes clear up front his vast respect for Eisenhower as a soldier and statesman (ranking him only second to FDR among 20th century Presidents), he does not spare the criticism. He notes with disapproval Eisenhower's sometimes leisurely lifestyle during his command in World War II, frequently having large villas and homes secured for his official "family" and always finding time for riding, socializing and card playing. Smith sides with contemporary military historians in faulting Ike as a battlefield commander (as opposed to a theater commander) in operations in North Africa and Europe and is especially harsh of Ike's handling of the drive to Germany and decision to adopt a campaign that pressed equally along all fronts (in conformity with dated US military doctrine long since abandoned by other nations - such a decision prolonged the war, adding countless military and civilian deaths, concludes Smith). He also ranks President Eisenhower's use of the CIA to topple democratic governments in Iran and Guatemala as a wartime mistake on par with Lincoln's suspension of Habeas Corpus and Roosevelt's internment of Japanese-Americans.

Smith rarely falters. A notable example is his characterization of Hoover's reaction to the Depression ("watch[ing] from the sidelines, convinced that natural forces would set things straight"), an outdated view long since abandoned by historians. It's a particularly odd mistake for Smith, whose last work was a major biography of FDR. Another slight failing is Smith's occasional reference to military positions and entities without an adequate explanation for the novice (understandable given his immersion in military affairs for other books). The discussion of the Court's opinion in Brown is a bit muddled. Finally, his unsupported explanation of Ike's renaming of Camp David as "evidently hoping to erase the memory" of his war time patron FDR seems both odd and petty. These, however, hardly detract from what will be the crowning achievement of one of our most gifted historians, and a strong candidate for a Pulitzer Prize.

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